Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Children's Treasury of Ugly Synths: Part 1

If you've been a reader of this blog for awhile, you probably know I have a soft spot in my heart for ugly synthesizers. I can't really explain why, but there's just something about a synth that is aesthetically-challenged that appeals to me. And there is no doubt that over the years, synth designers have made some truly WTF decisions with the designs of some otherwise cool instruments. So I thought it might be fun to look at some of these. Over the next three days, we'll take a look at some of the ugliest synths ever made. These are just in alphabetical order, so I'll leave it up to you to decide which is the ugliest. Keep in mind, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so if you're offended by any of the choices, shut up.

1. Crumar Bit 01
The Crumar Bit 01 was the rackmount version of the similarly-named Bit One keyboard, a 6-voice digitally-controlled analog polysynth. Although it was actually quite a decent-sounding synth, it looked like a piece of lab equipment (which may actually endear it to some people). Bland white panels with a minimum of controls and a look that shows the difference between something designed by an designer and something designed by an engineer.

2. Dave Smith Instruments Mopho
After Sequential Circuits dissolved in 1987 (or more accurately, were absorbed by Yamaha), things were quiet from Dave Smith for awhile. (Although he was active... not many people know he was responsible for the world's first softsynth.) And the Sequential fans were not disappointed. Smith showed he still had "it" when it came to building great-sounding, unique instruments. One of his most-heralded new products was the Mopho, an analog mono synth that was known as the Pro One II during its development phase. True to its edgy name, the Mopho was a ballsy beast capable of floor-rattling bass and screaming leads alike. So what would you envision such an instrument to look like? You want to make it look as bad-ass as possible, right? So you can understand why a bright sunflower-yellow synth might seem a bit odd. And what is with that ugly font?

Electronic Dream Plant was a British synth manufacturer started by Adrian Wagner (who, according to Wikipedia, was a decendent of bombastic classical composer Richard Wagner). Their best known product was the Wasp, a digital synth with analog filters and a slew of unusual features. How unusual? How about the ability to run it on batteries, a built-in speaker, and a non-moving membrane keyboard? You'd be forgiven for thinking it looks like a toy, but it was actually a pretty cool sounding synth. But my God, what an eyesore! I assume the coloring was supposed to be like a hornet (close enough), and really, what musician WOULDN'T want to wail away an incredible solo on something that looks like a bumble bee? It is safe to say that if you were playing one of these onstage, you weren't getting laid after the show.

Since debuting with the extremely unique Sidstation, Swedish synth designers Elektron have wowed electronic musicians with a number of innovative products. The Monomachine was no exception, offering 5 independent synths each offering multiple types of synthesis as the basis for your sounds. The synth was released in a rather normal-looking rack version, as well as a keyboard version whose design was... eyebrow raising. Perhaps paying tribute to synths like the Roland SH-3a (more on that later), Elektron made the curious decision to place all the controls to the side of the keyboard instead of above it. It looks like someone sewed a drum machine to the side of a controller keyboard. I've never used one personally, so I can't say for sure, but it seems like it would be a bit of a pain to program.

5. EML Electrocomp Model 100
Where even to start with this one? Is there a color that clashes more with brown wood than bright blue? Good thing it was an amazing synth. 4 extremely stable oscillators, multimode filters, sample and hold, and a folding design that turned the synth into its own carrying case.

The Fizmo was the last product released by Pennsylvania-based Ensoniq before they were bought out by E-mu and eventually dissolved. And what a controversial synth it proved to be! The synth built on Ensoniq's "Transwave" technology, first seen in the VFX, and was essentially a form of wavetable synthesis with much in common with products from PPG and Waldorf. Unfortunately, it was also extremely buggy when first released and there were issues with build quality that combined to make the Fizmo a source of derision when it first came out. However, the synth has seen a recent resurgence in popularity on the second hand market as more and more musicians began to recognize the unique sounds it was capable of. Regardless of that, though, it remains an almost hilariously 90's-looking design. Almost makes you want to don a Cosby sweater and bust out some Bell Biv Devoe riffs...

What abominations are next? Tune in tomorrow to find out!


Jim Bob said...

The top one is geek sexy!

That drunk guy again said...

There damn well better be a picture of a certain booger green SCI Pro- One in tomorrow's segment.

Tom said...

Haha Steve... Don't hate on The Hulk

Graham said...

Not all Electrocomps were in blue. I used one with white panel graphics for several years in college. http://www.vintagesynth.com/eml/eml101.php

Pighood said...

Fizmo = the seckzaay